How Better Call Saul Does and Doesn't Work as a Prequel

at .

Prequels are weird.

Most stories relish the fact that the viewer doesn’t know where the story is headed, so it’s an odd thing to create a tale specifically designed to lead somewhere viewers have already been.

Due to this unique nature, prequels have to be a bit more meticulously crafted if they want to hold up as a worthwhile form of storytelling, fitting in future events while also telling their own stories.

On a Mission - Better Call Saul

There are few main appeals of prequels as a format; they allow us to answer mysteries about characters and events, reframe the sequel series or other future content, and allow viewers and writers to spend more time in a universe that they love.

When told properly, prequels also allow for built-in tension.

Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad that focuses on the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, and how Jimmy McGill turned into the “criminal” lawyer known on Breaking Bad.

So how does and doesn’t Better Call Saul work as a prequel?

The early goings of prequels can be rough, and Better Call Saul isn’t much different in that regard.

Jimmy Stars Community Service - Tall - Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 7

I’d chalk this up to the fact that in most television shows it takes a few episodes to find a groove and discover what’s connecting with audiences and what’s connecting in the writers' room.

We see this trend most regularly with comedy series, where the first season often seems like it features totally different characters and humor compared to later seasons after a show has found its groove.

Prequel series have a built in buffer where it can rest on its parent series a bit until it discovers itself, though this doesn’t always result in the best of storytelling.

This happens with Better Call Saul. The first few episodes seem to heavily rely on the Breaking Bad connection, with Tuco’s appearance being a particularly noteworthy callback to the parent series.

When Saul is taken into the desert to be shot by Tuco, there is a familiar tension to Breaking Bad, with limbs and lives being on the line.

Nacho Hangs Out - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

While it may be fun for some viewers to see their favorite characters pop up in another show, constantly reminding the audience that this is a prequel series is the opposite of what a prequel should do.

By remaining so true to Breaking Bad in its tone and its scenarios, Better Call Saul’s early episodes feel like they serve Breaking Bad more than they serve their own series.

Who works for who, huh?

Hector [to Nacho]

Fortunately for us, Better Call Saul soon shifts its attention elsewhere, shifting the source of the tension as well.

From these early episodes forward, Better Call Saul delineates itself from Breaking Bad by creating tension through dread and relationships instead of danger and suspense.

It does this by putting more emphasis on the characters surrounding Jimmy, like his brother Chuck and his girlfriend Kim. 

Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul

Not only does this give us new characters to care about and invest in, thus creating Better Call Saul’s own distinct universe, but it begins to use the prequel format in service to Better Call Saul instead of Breaking Bad.

Now instead of just peppering us with fun homages and moments of, “Look it’s that character from Breaking Bad!”, Better Call Saul begins to use our knowledge of future events in this universe to increase our investment in Jimmy McGill’s story.

We know Chuck and Kim aren’t anywhere to be seen in Breaking Bad, so what happens to them?

There is a built-in tension due to the format. Our knowledge acts as the time-bomb under the diner table.

As the animosity between Jimmy and his brother rises, we’re waiting for the explosion. When it finally comes on Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 5, “Chicanery,” there is almost a sense of release, like it’s finally over.

Chuck Listens to Jimmy's Apology - Tall - Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 4

Except even here, our knowledge works against us. It’s not over, and we know it. Jimmy has so much further left to fall.

Betsy: I'm sorry. You're just...
Jimmy: I'm what?
Betsy: You're the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.

Moving into Better Call Saul Season 5, we’re now in the same waiting game with Kim. How will her relationship with Jimmy crumble?

Of course, none of this is worth anything if the writing for this story isn’t excellent. The characters on Better Call Saul don’t work because it’s a prequel; they work because it’s an expertly told story.

Every character is multifaceted and complete. Howard isn’t the stuck-up suit he initially seems, Chuck is a complicated man with an unreasonable yet understandable resentment towards his brother, and Kim is a good person with a taste for occasional deviousness.

All of these characters work without any Breaking Bad. If Breaking Bad didn’t exist, this would be a fascinating story.

Jimmy talks to Kim - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

But part of what elevates Better Call Saul into the pantheon of excellent television is it’s prequel status, especially when regarding its titular character.

At the start of the series it seems as though we’re going to get a cool back story on one of the funniest characters from Breaking Bad, but as we dive further into who Jimmy McGill is and why he is that way, the dread starts to settle in.

Jimmy is a pretty decent guy on Better Call Saul; much more humane than Saul Goodman ever is on Breaking Bad.

So watching the transformation of Jimmy McGill is tragic, and it’s rare that we get to witness a tragic tale as such before its conclusion.

Usually, its the end of a tale that turns a story into tragedy; Romeo and Juliet isn’t nearly as sad if they end up happily ever after, for example, but the audience doesn't learn that until the end.

Gene at Home - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

Maybe Jimmy will clean up his act and make Kim happy. Maybe he will start taking the law as seriously as Chuck and do Chuck proud.

Those are thoughts we can’t have while watching Better Call Saul.

I started this series excited to see Jimmy turn into Saul, and now I’m hoping that somehow he never does. Jimmy has the opportunity to have such a better life, and I keep watching him make these mistakes, and I know where they all lead.

It’s dreadful, and it’s captivating.

This is when Better Call Saul is at its best; when it creates dread and tension through its prequel status -- when it uses Breaking Bad in service to itself instead of paying service to Breaking Bad.

Saul's Appears - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

The story of Jimmy McGill is far more interesting than any references to Breaking Bad the series can conjure up, and it’s why the fall of Jimmy McGill has been consistently excellent throughout the show.

Jimmy’s story always comes before the ties to Breaking Bad, and with the show’s excellent writing, acting, and cinematography, Jimmy’s fall is one of the best arcs on television.

Mike’s story, on the other hand, does not always come before its ties to Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul Season 3 introduces one of Breaking Bad’s biggest villains — Gus.

Gus is a great villain on Breaking Bad. He’s a great mirror to Walter White and an intimidating presence.

Gus' Story - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

His presence on Better Call Saul, and the storylines that come with him, don’t live up to Gus’ legend.

Essentially from Better Call Saul Season 3 onwards, the show splits in half. There is Jimmy’s half and Mike’s half.

Jimmy’s half is Better Call Saul. Mike’s half is “Breaking Bad the Prequel.”

Mike: You seem to be risking a lot for a drug dealer.
Lydia: Drug dealer? If that's all you think he is, then you don't know Gustavo Fring.

There is no better example of this than Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 9, "Wiedersehen" when Lalo explains how Hector Salamanca got the hotel bell on his wheelchair.

Mike Digs - Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 8

The origin of Hector’s bell is an inconsequential mystery in the grand scheme of both of these shows, and by giving small details from Breaking Bad elaborate explanations, it starts to feel as if someone has planned all of this.

That may sound ridiculous considering that writers are literally the Gods of their stories, creating and destroying anything and everyone they want.

However, from a viewer’s standpoint, the ability to get sucked into a world lessens when everything feels manufactured. Real life is unpredictable, and not everything is connected to a larger mythos.

This is why deus ex machinas feel so cheap; we can feel the writers just deciding something happens. It doesn’t feel natural.

The bell backstory is a prominent example of this and is a recurring issue in Mike’s storyline with Gus; it doesn’t feel natural within the parameters of Better Call Saul.

Mike Evaluates - Better Call Saul

Compared to Jimmy’s storyline where the main draw is the descent into darkness, Mike’s storyline mostly seems to focus on the Breaking Bad ties.

The creation of Gus’ superlab is something that, at some point, had to have happened, or else Gus wouldn’t have a superlab on Breaking Bad.

But does the creation of that superlab need to be explained in great detail? Does that explanation improve the story of Better Call Saul? Or does it just fill in details from Breaking Bad?

What is it about the lab itself that relates to Mike and his relationship with Gus? Why is this particular project integral to Mike and Gus’ storylines?

The tail end of Better Call Saul Season 4 slightly rectifies the ship and attaches Mike to one of the construction workers. Mike’s personal dilemmas dealing with him are worthwhile feelings to explore.

Mike Meets Madrigal - Tall - Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 9

However, it takes much too long to get here. We spend so much time with the start of this lab and the misdirection that a different construction worker will be a problem that we miss out on seeing exactly how this situation is affecting Mike.

This is why I question the value of this particular plot point on Better Call Saul. There are almost certainly other plotlines that would have provided us much fuller insight into Mike as a character and allowed Gus and Mike’s relationship to develop.

Instead, we get a detailed look at how difficult the lab was to create.

Compare this to Nacho’s storyline from Better Call Saul Season 3, when we find out how Hector Salamanca ended up in his wheelchair.

Do we need to know how Hector ended up in his wheelchair? No, but the answer to this question is integral to Nacho and his place within the criminal underworld.

Nacho Does Business - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

Hector’s heart attack is the result of Nacho’s attempt to get rid of the man, driven by Nacho’s desire to protect himself and his father from any violent consequences.

This event doesn’t just result in, “Oh, so that’s how Hector got into the wheelchair,” but ends up causing Nacho to fall even deeper into trouble as Gus blackmails Nacho into working for him.

Hector’s heart attack advances Nacho’s storyline in an integral way. There is no greater betrayal to the Salamancas than trying to kill Hector, which mean Gus’ blackmail holds serious weight.

You cannot substitute Nacho trying to kill a regular henchman or stealing from the Salamancas to fit this storyline. It only works with a task as severe as the attempted murder on Hector.

This is in direct contrast to the lab construction, of which so far, doesn’t seem to fulfill that same integral role and therefore becomes more about answers than Mike or Gus’ stories.

Gus Navigates the Fallout - Tall - Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 2

On top of this, there is nothing within Mike’s side of this show to reframe anything we see within Breaking Bad. 

Better Call Saul is an excellently written series, so it gets away with a lot of these missteps.

Gus’ speech to Hector about letting an animal suffer on Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 6, "Pinata" is incredibly well written. I can only imagine how chilling this speech would have been if it had been the first time I was learning of the depths of Gus’ darkness.

But it’s not the first time. It’s not even the third time. Gus was explored in-depth on Breaking Bad, and no matter how well written his monologue is, it’s a repeat.

There is no reframing of Gus here. The same goes for Mike.

Burning Bridges - Better Call Saul

(Though Mike has some good development early in the series, and as stated earlier the ending of Better Call Saul Season 4 is strong and gives me high hopes for his continued development in Better Call Saul Season 5).

The prequel status actively hurts Mike and Gus’ storyline by too obediently serving Breaking Bad. We learn very little new about the characters and nothing we learn reframes their actions on Breaking Bad.

Jimmy Explains Saul to Kim - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

If only they’d take a lesson from their lead.

Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad is seen in a completely different light after witnessing the events of Better Call Saul.

There are hints of a conscience within the Saul of Breaking Bad, but learning about Jimmy McGill on Better Call Saul, we see there is a much more decent man hidden under Saul than we ever knew.

Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad isn’t a funny and sleazy lawyer, he’s a tragic sideshow of a broken man who had to hollow himself out to continue to function properly.

Kim: I keep thinking, was there another way?
Jimmy: Another way? Chuck? Is that what you're talking about? Kim, he had us in a a corner, OK? We did what we had to do.
Kim: But Rebecca?
Jimmy: Everything that happened was his own fault. Everything. You put him in the rear view mirror. He is not worth thinking about. Done.

That’s what a good prequel can do. Add depth and meaning to its source material while still shining on its own with its unique traits and characters.

A Risky Plan - Better Call Saul Season 4 Episode 3

Prequels are difficult. If you ever need to write one, there may be no better example for both the dangers and benefits of a prequel than Better Call Saul.

Excellent writing may keep Better Call Saul on the engaging side of television, but that doesn’t excuse the errors it has made along the way.

The fact that it uses the prequel format to such success on the other side of the same show actually may make it less excusable.

I have high hopes for the final two seasons. Due to the complete separation of Jimmy and Mike's stories, the pitfalls Mike’s side has fallen into have mostly avoided staining the excellent Jimmy side.

Assuming that these worlds will be colliding soon, I expect that the stronger storyline will take over and Jimmy’s story will be more important to the writers than continuing ties with Breaking Bad.

Kim with a Client - Better Call Saul Season 5 Episode 1

We’ve had enough of that.

Gus puts a bag over someone’s head and threatens people - I’ve seen that before. I don’t need more Breaking Bad because Breaking Bad lasted 5 seasons (and now a movie) and I can go rewatch that.

We don't need "The Breaking Bad prequel" that serves its predecessor.

We need Chuck’s breakdown on the stand. We need Jimmy’s ridiculous schemes and cons.

We need Kim freaking out on Howard. We need Nacho desperately trying to keep his father safe.

Jimmy is Upset - Tall - Better Call Saul Season 3 Episode 2

We need the dreadful captivation of Jimmy’s slip into Saul Goodman.

We need Better Call Saul.

Tommy Czerpak is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.

Show Comments

Better Call Saul Quotes

You know, Jimmy, sometimes in our line of work, you can get so caught up in the idea of winning that you forget to listen to your heart.


Lawyers, we're like health insurance. You hope you never need it, but man oh man, when you do...